Like a wildfire, protests ignited in cities across America and around the world after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25.
As if on cue, peaceful protests quickly became dangerous riots that soon transformed into a cancel culture calling for the defunding of police departments, destruction of historic symbols and attacks on the foundations of our democracy.
Real fires require two conditions and a catalyst: Combustible material in the presence of oxygen and a spark. So does the wildfire of this modern-day protest: a large population with a grievance galvanized by an egregious incident of police brutality and videos of the event posted on social media. Floyd’s death is the catalyst; social media is the oxygen. The wildfire burns bright.
The grievance of unequal treatment of Black populations is real. It is ingrained in our collective cultures, especially in economics. Disparate treatment of Blacks by law enforcement is a visible symptom of the matter.
It was not supposed to be this way. The promise of the Civil War of the 1860s and the civil rights movement of the 1960s was that Black populations would gain the opportunity to participate in the mainstream of American life. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which enjoyed strong bipartisan support, outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Equal rights in employment, housing and credit were specifically emphasized. New commissions were charged with enforcement responsibilities. Hope and change were in the air.
For many, that promise has not been realized.
Judging by news reports and interviews, the underlying complaint to unequal treatment is unequal participation in our economy evidenced by a stark disparity in incomes. Equal participation, however, is easier said than done.
The core of our mainstream American economic culture is a Western-European, Judeo-Christian-inspired ethic of diligent work, thrift and innovation nurtured within nuclear families all governed by the rule of law. An undergirding belief that good works and good order honor God encourages sacrifices in the present for a glorious future. In economics, that is capitalism and its wealth-creating power is revered. This ethic strongly favors education, health and self-discipline — all investments in human capital.
Personal or social cultures aside, conforming to the central themes of our economic culture — good work and good order — is essential to participation and to success. Those of us inside this culture take participation for granted. For those outside, participation in this culture may require difficult changes, or may be repugnant.
Extremists within the current protest movement offer one solution: to abolition society as we know it where participation is by edict with radicals in charge. While sounding themes of justice, liberation and peace, the mission statement of the organization called Black Lives Matter is to combat state-sanctioned violence against Blacks. The state is their target. Their goal, as articulated on their website, is to restructure society.
Demands by protesters of an equitable distribution of wealth by fiat, or the development of a socialist economy cannot satisfy the desire for equitable participation or the equitable division of wealth. Only full participation in our economy by people of all colors, religions or ethnicities and equal application of the law will do.
It takes two to tango. Participation by all requires businesses and governments to remove barriers that keep minorities from joining the workforce or the entrepreneurial class. And, those who wish to participate in the mainstream economy must comply with its basic operating rules or work to change them.
The wildfire will only stop burning when the root cause is fully addressed.
George Schneidermann lives in Rock Rapids. He may be reached at email@example.com.